December 8, 2019

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29 years, 29 thoughts

After a week of celebrating the end of the Blue Bombers' miserable drought, there are a few questions to answer before training camp begins in June

Now that almost a week has passed since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers captured their first Grey Cup in nearly three decades, it's as good a time as any to ponder the team's future.

Could ending the long championship curse be what the Bombers needed to rejuvenate the younger generation? I saw so many young kids at the post-Grey Cup celebrations it makes me wonder if that could translate to the box office.

Also, could this result in an influx of talent wanting to come to Winnipeg, no longer just a team that treats its players well and has top-notch facilities, but is also a winner?

Indeed, it will be interesting to see what benefits the victory brings, something I'm sure the team's brass will also have a keen eye on. But there's a lot more, particularly some question marks on the roster, that will also need to be addressed in the coming days, weeks and months.

In honour of snapping a 29-year Grey Cup drought, here are 29 thoughts I have heading into the off-season: 

1) Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller is as stubborn a businessman as they come. It's a quality I'm sure doesn't always sit well with some of his employees but it finally paid off in spades this season. He had a vision when he took over in 2013 to bring fans the best game-day experience in the CFL (which, I'd argue, he did) but until this season he had fallen short of his overall goal of producing a winner on the field. Miller has finally delivered everything he's promised, forever cementing his legacy as a shrewd executive.

Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller is as stubborn a businessman as they come. BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller is as stubborn a businessman as they come. BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

2) Miller likely won't see it this way, but his biggest gamble was perhaps handing the keys to a rookie general manager in Kyle Walters and rookie head coach Mike O'Shea. Together, Walters and O'Shea rebuilt the culture, with Walters bringing in quality talent through the draft and free agency, while O'Shea instilled a standard of professionalism among his players. Miller stuck with them after one successful season in the first three years, inking both to multi-year deals despite a win-loss record of 23-31. When vocal fans wanted O'Shea gone, Miller didn't budge.

3) Prior to the start of playoffs, O'Shea denied reports that he turned down "multiple offers" to re-sign with the Bombers. It's well-known among those in the media who work closely with O'Shea, when he doesn't want to answer a question he'll often jump on a single word and run with it. In this case, it was "multiple." There's no doubt in my mind a conversation about the 2020 season came up prior to the 2019 campaign and it's clear O'Shea preferred to cross that bridge later. I don't blame him for a second. The Bombers were Grey Cup favourites and bringing a title home would only make those future yearly cheques that much higher. He bet on himself, and though it looked like a horrible gamble late in the year, his decision paid off.

4) I expect O'Shea to sign a multi-year deal with the Bombers, saying thanks but no thanks to the Toronto Argonauts, who will no doubt — or, at least, should — make a push for him (multiple reports suggest coach Cory Chamblin will get another chance). Why would O'Shea leave now, at a time when he's the most popular guy at the dance? Add to that how much O'Shea and his family were embraced during the parade and it seems bizarre to leave something you worked so hard to build, only to then buy another fixer-upper.

Kyle Walters (left) and Mike O'Shea rebuilt the team's culture. WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Kyle Walters (left) and Mike O'Shea rebuilt the team's culture. WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

5) I'm curious about what the team will do with Walters. From the outside, you could argue an appropriate reward would be to tack on more years to a contract that doesn't expire until the end of next season. It might seem obvious that Walters would want to re-up but I'm not so sure that's the case here. Call it a gut feeling. But one thing that's certain is general managers who just won a Grey Cup don't go into a season with an expiring contract unless something's up.

6) Richie Hall faced a lot of criticism over his time in Winnipeg, from me and from others for what seemed like unfixable issues on the defence. But it was Hall, who has been the team's defensive co-ordinator the past four seasons, who had the last laugh. After what we saw from the D in the playoffs, it would no longer be funny for him to return.

Whether he wants to remains to be seen, though I've been told by a few people close to the club that the playoff run has invigorated him. When considering his recent health issues, Hall is the only coach I could see moving forward on a year-to-year basis.

7) It's hard to imagine offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice will be back next season. He wants a head coaching job, and was upset when the Bombers didn't allow him to interview with Saskatchewan last winter.

It's been reported he'll be interviewing with three teams (B.C., Ottawa and Edmonton). When you consider what he was able to do with Winnipeg's offence over the last four years, and particularly with the quarterbacks this season, it seems like enough to give the former bench boss another chance.

8) Though I'll miss LaPolice's trademark eye-roll to "dumb" football questions, his well-deserved promotion would make way for another good guy to climb the ranks. Buck Pierce, the current quarterbacks coach, has been on O'Shea's staff for six seasons and has turned down other opportunities to be an OC elsewhere because he wants to stay in Winnipeg. Simply put, he's next in line. He's an automatic hire, given his knowledge and respect across the league.

It's hard to imagine offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice will be back next season. MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

It's hard to imagine offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice will be back next season. MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

9) The Bombers have 25 pending free agents set to hit the open market in February, including all their quarterbacks not named Sean McGuire. It sounds like a lot... but it isn't.

10) Need more proof not to panic? The Bombers have the fewest expiring contracts in the league, with the Ottawa Redblacks and Montreal Alouettes next at 28. The rest are all over 30.

11) Speaking of quarterbacks, who is going to play behind centre next season?

12) Veteran pivot Zach Collaros put together one of the most incredible stories ever in the CFL. But after joining the Bombers in early October and then leading them to a Grey Cup by winning all four of his starts, it feels like his chapter in Winnipeg has been written.

The Bombers couldn't have given a better sales pitch, either, and there's no doubt the 31-year-old cherished every moment. But he's got a wife and new house back in southern Ontario, so it's hard to imagine he'll be sold into staying another year.

Zach Collaros put together one of the most incredible stories ever in the CFL. NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Zach Collaros put together one of the most incredible stories ever in the CFL. NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

13) Assuming Collaros is gone, I believe Matt Nichols will again be at the top of the Bombers' QB list. Nichols, who will get a full off-season of training after undergoing shoulder surgery in late-September and is cheaper than Ticats' pending free-agent Jeremiah Masoli, believes he has plenty of good years ahead of him. The Bombers, if they do sign Nichols, will likely credit his win-loss record (30-17 since 2016) and leadership skills. The big question, however, is whether the 32 year old can stay healthy.

14) If Winnipeg is going to sign Nichols there has to be one condition: Chris Streveler also comes back. The Bombers need to work within that two-headed quarterback monster and Streveler showed this season that his legs and heart were massive in the team's championship run.

15) Can we just stop for a moment and consider what the last week has looked like for Streveler? I'm pretty sure the 24-year-old wore the same cowboy hat, long brown fur coat with full chest exposed, blue shorts and sneakers the entire week. Once he sobers up he should consider running for mayor in the next city election.

Once he sobers up, Chris Streveler should consider running for mayor. MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Once he sobers up, Chris Streveler should consider running for mayor. MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

16) My guess is Willie Jefferson will be back next season. Here's why: the hulking defensive end fell in love with his now-wife Holly in Winnipeg during the 2015 Grey Cup while a member of the Edmonton Eskimos; and, together, spent the last year raising their adorable baby girl Kelley in the city en route to another league title. Winnipeg looks good on the Jeffersons.

17) If Jefferson does end up moving on, I'd look to re-signing Craig Roh. He was a good player, registering six sacks, three forced fumbles and 16 tackles in 12 games, and an even better soldier when he became the odd man out after the Canadian ratio needed to be tweaked when Brandon Alexander replaced Jeff Hecht at safety.

18) The last time Stanley Bryant needed a change of scenery he had just played five seasons with the Calgary Stampeders, capped with a Grey Cup win in 2014, and was in Winnipeg the next year. Guess how many seasons he's been in Winnipeg? I feel like you already know.

19) Bryant would be crazy to leave the Bombers. He just narrowly missed out on his third-consecutive most outstanding offensive lineman award this year, so why not stay where you know you can excel? In this league, one bad year can mean the end. The only way he doesn't stay is if someone wants to give him Sukh Chungh kind of money.

Stanley Bryant would be crazy to leave the Bombers.  MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Stanley Bryant would be crazy to leave the Bombers. MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

20) Chungh, who was the league's biggest off-season signing bust in the CFL after inking a three-year deal with B.C. worth an unexplainable $250,000 per season, was hardly thought of in Winnipeg this year. That's because youngsters Drew Desjarlais, Cody Speller and Geoff Gray were just that good.

20) Jermarcus Hardrick is one of the most underrated offensive tackles in the CFL, mostly because he plays opposite of Bryant. He was bitter that he didn't get a division or league all-star nod, and I don't really blame him. He eats and breathes Winnipeg, so my belief is he'll be back. Hardrick and Bryant as bookends on the O-line has been the envy of every quarterback outside Winnipeg.

21) Staying on the O-line for another moment, centre Michael Couture told me over Grey Cup week that he knew people were doubting him in June. He didn’t love it, of course, but he understood that he was filling a big hole left by Matthias Goossen, who retired at the age of 26 to pursue a career as a police officer in Delta, B.C.

Couture went on to excel in the starting role, playing in all 18 regular-season games. But an injury to his left leg forced him to miss the playoffs. He bet on himself and, I'd argue, won by signing a one-year deal. But his raise next year could be less than it would have been had he played throughout the post-season.

22) Bring Patrick Neufeld back. He played great when healthy and, most importantly, is the best quote on the O-line.

23) The Bombers' signing of cornerback Winston Rose — who put pen to paper on the second day of free agency after much of the big money had already been doled out — proved to be one of the CFL's best contracts. Rose's five interceptions in 2018 was tied for the CFL lead. But because he played for a mediocre Lions team, the interest around the league just didn't seem there.

Rose took his game to a whole new level with the Bombers this season, leading the league once again in interceptions, with nine. He was named a West Division and CFL all-star for the first time in his career, and was big in the playoffs, including a pivotal pick against the Roughriders in the West final.

Winston Rose took his game to a whole new level with the Bombers this season. JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winston Rose took his game to a whole new level with the Bombers this season. JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

24) Of the six guys in the secondary who started for the Bombers in the Grey Cup, including at strong-side linebacker, only Alexander is under contract for 2020.

25) Rose and halfback Marcus Sayles should be the top two priorities to re-sign. Mercy Maston, Mike Jones and Nick Taylor should cost less and, at the right price, would be worth bringing back. After all, how many times have we been told over the years about the importance of continuity in the secondary?

26) As far as making statements go, none were perhaps bigger this year than the one delivered by running back Andrew Harris. Harris told his critics where they could stick it after winning the Grey Cup's MVP and most outstanding Canadian awards.

I've received emails from readers in recent days telling me that Harris proved me wrong. No, he didn't. I've never denied he's a special talent in this league, nor have I ripped Harris online.

True to my word about keeping it to the regular season, I was also one of a small number of voters that picked him for both awards. I stand by both votes.

27) Now that Harris has delivered a Grey Cup to his hometown, it's time he focuses on getting back those test results he publicly said he was challenging. It was always going to be after the season was over, as the independent process takes some time, but those questions are coming.

Now that Andrew Harris has delivered a Grey Cup to his hometown, it's time he focuses on getting back those test results he publicly said he was challenging.  RUTH BONNEVILLE  /  WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Now that Andrew Harris has delivered a Grey Cup to his hometown, it's time he focuses on getting back those test results he publicly said he was challenging. RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

28) Kudos to defensive tackle and good East Coaster Jake Thomas. He was the longest-tenured Bomber to win the Grey Cup, playing his first season in Winnipeg in 2011, and it was a honourable gesture to have him be the first to hoist the trophy. And to think they almost cut him loose ahead of the 2018 season only to bring him back late in training camp after plans for a few other Canadian D-linemen didn't pan out. He proved again this year he's still a solid contributor and should be back in 2020.

29) Finally, I want to thank everyone who read my stories, reached out over e-mail, praised me and/or criticized me. I appreciate the passion and, to borrow a phrase from O'Shea from when he was asked about the crazy journey it took for the Bombers to get to the Grey Cup: "I wouldn't have it any other way."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

Read full biography

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